Around the Watercooler with Jack Hoffbuhr

AWWA Executive Director Jack Hoffbuhr answers questions about federal funding, reuse, and public water education in this exclusive interview with Water & Wastewater Products.

The ASCE released a report in 2005 that said there is an $11 billion annual shortfall in the amount of federal funding needed to upgrade, maintain, and replace the 55,000 drinking water systems in the United States. How large a problem do you think this will become, and where do you think the almost $1 trillion in necessary infrastructure funding will come from over the next 20 years?
Jack Hoffbuhr: AWWA's 2001 report, Dawn of the Replacement Era, suggested the cost would be in the range of $250 billion for the replacement of pipes and associated structures over the next 30 years. We don't believe, however, that there is going to be a federal silver bullet to solve the funding gap. While federal grants may be available for extraordinary cases, local communities will have to pay for upgrades through rates and other local financing. That's why we're working so hard to encourage proactive asset management strategies among utilities. We're also launching a campaign to remind consumers and public officials what "Only Tap Water Delivers" in terms of public health protection, fire protection support for the economy, and overall quality of life.

We also need to encourage Congress to fully fund SRF (state revoloving fund) programs, so that communities can borrow the money they need to sustain their critical infrastructure.

How long do you think it will take for water reuse to gain wide acceptance among the American public, and how large an impact do you think it will make on the way drinking water is handled in this country? How about the rest of the world?
Water reuse can be a very important component in a community's overall water management program. I don't think most Americans are comfortable with the notion of wastewater being treated to the level of drinking water quality, although the technology to do so is clearly there and is already used in other parts of the world. What water reuse can do today is treat water for non-drinking purposes, such as the irrigation of golf courses or industrial uses. That frees up other resources for drinking water. Naturally, water reuse is likely to be taken more seriously in semi-arid communities and places experiencing drought. Its time is coming.

A recent report by the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation (NEETF) stated that 64 percent of Americans think that there is a surplus of drinking water in the United States. Do you think this presents a significant barrier to wide acceptance of reuse systems?
:I'm not familiar with that report, but I suspect most Americans' impression of the availability of water resources reflects their own experience. People in the arid Southwest or in places where drought has forced changes in residential water use have been forced to understand the value of the resource. Water reuse and other technologies will naturally gain faster acceptance in these places.

Do you think this misconception indicates a breakdown in communication between the drinking water industry and the public?
Again, I think people's perception about water availability is closely tied to their climate and personal experience. I do think water professionals have an obligation to communicate the value of water resources through all available means.

A 2004 AWWA report found that people undervalue water, and because they do, water utilities often have a hard time setting rates that reflect the full cost of the service. When I say "service," I also mean the efforts it takes to develop and steward sustainable supplies. So it's critical that the water profession talk about what only tap water delivers -- both in terms of the vital resource and essential service.

It seems like more and more people are taking an interest in learning about the quality of their tap water, but the NEETF survey illustrates some striking examples of how uninformed the general public is about drinking water issues. For example, the survey says that 45 million Americans believe the oceans are a source of fresh water. What is AWWA doing to help educate the public about the origin and cleanliness of their drinking water? Why do you think the public has become so concerned with drinking water?
We really do believe that consumer information is more critical than ever. AWWA's new consumer Web site, www.drinktap.org, is an excellent tool to help people find credible answers about tap water quality in an environment where they're getting a lot of confusing messages. In a single day, a water consumer might read an Internet or niche magazine report that questions tap water quality, absorb TV advertising from bottled water manufacturers, and then pass an aisle full of point-of-use devices in a home improvement store. So we want consumers to make informed decisions. If they choose to drink bottled water, we hope they're making that choice out of personal taste, preference, or convenience, not because of health concerns. If they choose to buy a home treatment device, we want them to purchase the right model for their particular need. In other words, don't buy a filter to remove lead that can come from some home fixtures if it's not certified for that purpose.

But beyond all that, it's important that consumers understand what else tap water delivers besides a good, safe drink. Only tap water delivers public health protection, fire protection, support for the economy, and our overall quality of life.

Do you have any predictions about what new business opportunities will develop in the next five years for U.S. companies that manufacture goods and services used in the drinking water treatment field?
I think we can say that business will grow in those areas that intersect with some of the issues we've already defined. For example, we can expect more investment in technologies necessary to comply in the current regulatory environment. Business opportunities will also grow around technologies that attempt to mitigate water sources issues. And there will be significant interest in technologies that address security, both at water facilities and in monitoring technologies.

What do you think the job market for U.S. drinking water professionals will be like during the next five years?
The Awwa Research Foundation (AwwaRF) recently published a report titled, "Succession Planning for a Vital Workforce in the Information Age." It provides a snapshot of the utility labor situation in the United States. It suggests that half of today's water utility workers are over age 44 -- that's four years older than the average U.S. worker. The average retirement age for utility employees is currently 56, and nearly a quarter of current water utility workers will be eligible for retirement in 5 years -- nearly 40 percent in 10 years. Women are also underrepresented in the water utilities. Women represent 47 percent of the workforce overall, but they represent less than 20 percent of the water utility workers.

Water utilities can expect that more than half of their current employees will no longer be there 10 years from now, either from retirement or transfer. That means an enormous amount of the water industry's intellectual capital will be walking out the door.

If there's a bright side to this, it's that there's enormous opportunity for young professionals in our industry. We need to do a better job of letting them know about the fantastic career opportunities available. I think we're up to the task.

What is AWWA's role in the recently formed "Utilities Helping Utilities" agreement that establishes networks to provide assistance to utilities during emergencies?
One of AWWA's greatest strengths is our ability to share the success stories and lessons learned among members for the benefit of the entire water community. In the past year, we all saw the importance of restoring water service following natural disasters. We saw that one of the best ways to get a water system back online after a hurricane, earthquake, or other disaster is to have the help of neighboring water professionals. So AWWA took a lead role in the joint policy statement signed in February 2006. The statement said that the water sector is committed to encouraging utilities and local and state governments to establish intrastate mutual aid networks. Signatories included AWWA, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Association of State Drinking Water Agencies, the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, the National Rural Water Association, and the Water Environment Federation.

An important outgrowth of this agreement is a March 29 comprehensive guidance tool that helps water and wastewater utilities establish mutual aid and assistance networks. The report is titled "Utilities Helping Utilities: An Action Plan for Mutual Aid and Assistance Networks for Water and Wastewater Utilities." We hope these efforts will pay off during the storms yet to come.

What do you think are the most important security issues affecting municipal water treatment plants?
AWWA's 2005 State of the Industry report again identified security as a major issue, but respondents also suggested they are feeling more comfortable in this area. Security was mentioned as a critical near-term issue by 25 percent of respondents in 2005 as opposed to 34 percent in 2004. It's difficult to say what the most significant issue is, but we know paying for security upgrades is an issue. Following the vulnerability assessments mandated in the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, utilities have identified areas of improvement and invested in better physical and computer security. There's a good deal of research being done in the area of online contaminant monitoring, also, to reduce vulnerabilities after water has already entered the distribution system.

What future impacts on municipal drinking water treatment facilities do you foresee resulting from the growing volume of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) that must be treated? What possible new regulations and treatment techniques do you think will be developed to deal with PPCPs, which some researchers believe may be potential endocrine disruptors?
This is an interesting area of research, especially as we're able to measure substances in smaller and smaller amounts. Treatment techniques and regulations should follow the best available science, and this is still an emerging area. We should all take note when an unwanted substance is found in water, and we need to take steps to educate consumers on the right way to dispose of medications, etc. But the fact that we can detect a substance in water sources does not mean it's harmful to humans in the small amount discovered, and that's an important distinction that can be lost on consumers.

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